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Forever and Ever, Amen: A Memoir of Music, Faith, and Braving the Storms of Life
by Randy Travis
Learn More | Meet Randy Travis
Pull the Plug
It was a sound I had become much too familiar with—the constant whirr of the machine that was keeping my collapsed lungs breathing, the incessant beep, beep, beep sound of the heart monitor. This was the soundtrack to the constant swirl of pensive doctors and nurses flitting in and out of my hospital room, poking one of my arms and then the other, taking more blood, running another test.
You should always be careful what you say in a hospital room when a patient is unconscious or in a coma. Don’t ever utter a negative statement about his or her condition because the person in the coma might well be able to hear you.
I know that is true. Because when I was in that state someone said the unthinkable:
“He’s not going to make it.”
“Maybe it’s time to discontinue life support.”
“He can’t survive this.”
“It’s time to pull the plug.”
This wasn’t the first time my fiancée, Mary Davis, had heard such dire predictions. The doctors had given me less than a 1 percent chance of survival since I’d first entered the hospital in Texas more than six weeks earlier, unable to breathe, with a virus in my heart that had led to a massive stroke and emergency surgery in which a large portion of my skull was removed to relieve the pressure in my brain. That portion of my skull was now secured in a pouch made of my own skin and sewn into my abdomen so the skull tissue could be kept alive until it was safe to reposition it on my head.
The stroke had taken away my ability to speak clearly, and it had paralyzed my right side, so I could barely move. After three weeks in the hospital in Texas, we had transferred to a rehabilitation center in Nashville, where my lungs had collapsed, I had contracted a staph infection, and my body was now septic. At times, I was semiconscious at best and breathing with the help of a machine. I had spent more than six weeks in and out of a coma. A tracheotomy tube stabbed through my throat, and my head was covered with what looked like a 1920s football helmet.
By this point, the doctors had basically given up any hope of my survival, and they probably thought they were being compassionate by encouraging Mary to pull the plug.
Mary leaned in close to me at my bedside, where she had spent every day for the past two months. She pressed her hand into mine. “Honey, you have to let me know if you want to keep fighting,” Mary said.
I wanted to shout as loudly as I had ever bellowed, yet no words formed, no sound came out of my mouth. But a single tear trickled from my eye and down my face as I mustered every ounce of energy I had. I squeezed Mary’s hand.
Mary stood straight up, turned, and faced the doctors. “It’s not our choice . . .” She stopped short, the words caught in her throat. She couldn’t bring herself to say, “. . . to decide whether Randy Travis lives or dies,” but everyone in the room understood. She squared her shoulders and looked straight at the doctors. “I suggest that everybody get on board, and let’s do everything we can to save him.”
We both knew that my life was in God’s hands. Like me, Mary believed that God had plans for my life and that our faith would get us through. We just weren’t quite sure how.
But I had braved numerous storms in my life and had frequently faced overwhelming odds, times when others had advised me to give up.
I hadn’t quit then—and I wasn’t about to quit now.
A Troubled Youth
“Get on up on this horse, Randy,” Daddy urged me. An unusually skillful horse trainer, my dad had taught the horse to kneel down on its front knees so I could climb into the saddle. I scrambled to place my foot into one of the stirrups and threw my leg over the beautiful animal as Daddy took a photograph. With a slight nudge from Daddy, the horse rose majestically to his full height. I was three years old and I felt as though I were on top of the world.
I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy. From the time I was born as Randy Bruce Traywick—on May 4, 1959, in Marshville, North Carolina, a small town with a population of approximately three thousand people, located about a half hour’s drive southeast of Charlotte—I had felt comfortable atop a horse. Thanks to Daddy’s profession, all my family members were as at home riding a horse as we were riding in a car.
I was one of six kids in the Traywick household. My mama, Bobbie Traywick, was a quiet, brown-eyed, dark-haired beauty with an angel’s heart. Mama worked in a textile mill that made potholders. She was a salt-of-the-earth sort of woman who felt it was her mission to have children, so she and Daddy had six of us within ten years. My brother Ricky is the oldest, thirteen months older than me. I’m second in line, followed by Rose in 1961; David in ’62; Sue in ’64; and our youngest brother, Dennis, in ’68.
Our dad, Harold Traywick, was a tall, lean man who worked in construction but also raised beef cows on our property and trained horses. At one point we had as many as twenty or thirty horses, so I grew up working with them and the other animals. Part of my chores every morning involved pitching hay for the horses and cleaning out the stalls with my brothers. That could be a bit of an adventure sometimes.
In our teen years, my younger brother David grew a marijuana plant right outside the stables. He nurtured that plant, watered it, and watched it grow to nearly four feet high. No doubt he was planning to enjoy a number of home-grown highs. What he didn’t realize, though, was that his marijuana plant had grown high enough that one of our horses could stick his neck out the back stable window and nibble on it. Once he started, the horse chomped down that entire plant!
When we went to clean out his stable the next morning, that poor horse’s front legs were crossed, and he was leaning over precariously to one side. He slumped over in a stupor, stoned out of his mind, and stayed that way for three days before he finally sobered up and could walk straight. I should have learned a lesson from that horse about the effects of marijuana, but I didn’t—not then, anyway.
I loved riding horses, even in the snow. When it snowed—which was always a big deal for kids in the Carolinas—my three brothers and two sisters and I, along with any cousins that might show up, would tie a sled behind one of the horses and use the horse to pull us up the hill. Dragging a sled behind a horse could be dangerous, which for a kid made it all the more fun.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite people in the world was my grandmother, Etta Davis Traywick. We all called her Ga-Ga. One of our older cousins couldn’t quite say the word Grandma, and every time she tried, what came out of her mouth sounded like Ga-Ga, so the name stuck. We had a Lady Gaga long before anyone else!
Ga-Ga lived right next door to us, and she was a pistol, with a great sense of humor. She was a fabulous cook, too, and every year our entire family gathered at Ga-Ga’s house for Christmas dinner, complete with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, corn, and plenty of desserts. At other times Ga-Ga prepared steaks or a big roast, and the whole family showed up to eat.
As sweet as Ga-Ga was, Daddy was just the opposite. Our dad was a man of contradictions. He could be tough as nails or soft as mush, depending on when you talked with him and how much he’d had to drink. The trouble was that Daddy liked to drink—a lot—and when he did he turned violent, threatening people, fighting with others, breaking furniture, and shooting at anything that got in his way. Fortunately, he never actually shot any people, but he came close!
For most of my early life, my siblings and I were afraid of Daddy, and I’m pretty sure Mama was too. None of us could understand why he was so mean to Mama or to us. He especially seemed to take out his anger on Ricky and me—knocking us around, beating us with leather horse reins, and screaming obscenities at us for the smallest thing we did or didn’t do, anything that didn’t meet his expectations.
When he wasn’t drinking, Daddy was a smart, hardworking man. During my childhood he supported our family well by building high-priced homes in and around Charlotte. When he had money, Daddy bought us almost anything we wanted—all six of us kids had our own horses by the time we were five years old, as well as go-carts and, later, Honda motorcycles. But when the booze took over, Daddy’s behavior turned loud, obnoxious, and even dangerous. Not only did he bang Mama and us kids around, Daddy had a rap sheet with the local police that stretched back over more than twenty years. Most of his arrests were alcohol related—everything from driving while intoxicated to public drunkenness, assaulting a law-enforcement officer, discharging a weapon in a restricted area, and threats and personal assault. Our dad was well known in our community as a rowdy rebel, ready to fight.
The one thing Daddy and I could agree on was our taste in music. We both loved traditional country music. Daddy knew every song by Hank Williams Sr. and was sort of a frustrated musician himself. He played guitar and wrote a few songs and even recorded two of them. With enough alcohol in his veins, he’d sometimes get up in a bar or club and sing.
I loved country music, too, but I didn’t really want to play guitar, and the truth is, I didn’t care much for singing at that time in my life. But Dad insisted. “Both you boys will be guitar players, and one of you will be a singer,” he told Ricky and me. “Which will it be?”
Ricky chose not to sing, so by default the singing fell to me. Singing seemed to come naturally to me, and folks who heard me said I had a talent for it. Some told me that my low baritone voice—even as a boy—was distinctive.
I learned to play guitar, too, although Ricky was always a far better guitarist than I was. To motivate my learning, Daddy bought me a used Gibson acoustic guitar. When I was nine years old, he paid for guitar lessons for Ricky and me from a local teacher, Kate Mangum, who lived about five miles from us. We loved Miss Kate, as we called her, and she taught us basic chords so that we could actually play songs. One of the songs I wanted Miss Kate to teach me was “I Saw the Light,” by Hank Williams. She strummed around a bit and found what she thought was a good key for my voice, then taught me how to play the song on guitar.
“Will you sing it for me?” she asked kindly. “Your brother Ricky won’t sing. He just wants to play guitar.”
“Okay,” I said rather bashfully. Miss Kate strummed along with me as I sang the lyrics. When we finished, she seemed pleased.
“You sing that song as well as Hank Williams,” she told me.
I wasn’t accustomed to getting compliments from Daddy, so I ate up Miss Kate’s encouraging words. “Do you really think so?” I asked.
“I sure do,” she said. “If you work real hard, someday you might be a singer like Hank Williams.”
She was a teacher encouraging a naïve student, but I embraced Miss Kate’s words and took them to heart.
Miss Kate taught us every week for nearly three years. Meanwhile, the other four kids began taking lessons, too, and soon we were playing all sorts of instruments. Dennis and Ricky played electric guitar, and Ricky occasionally played drums. Our sister Rose played piano. Our brother David played bass, and our sister Sue played mandolin, banjo, and dobro. I played acoustic guitar and sang most of the lead vocals.
It didn’t take long for lessons and practice to turn into performances. We played stone-solid traditional country music at venues such as the Moose Lodge in Monroe, North Carolina, and the local VFW in Marshville, as well as at fiddlers’ conventions around the Carolinas—popular festivals showcasing much more than squeaky violin playing. The fiddlers’ conventions featured musicians playing banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, and guitars, as well as fiddles and were part competitions, part music workshops, and partly just good old-time jam sessions.
But we didn’t have to go to a convention to have a jam session. As our family grew, Daddy built additions onto our original house. When we started taking music lessons, he built an eight-hundred-square-foot music room onto the back of our house—complete with a dance-floor, a fully stocked bar, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The room boasted a stage on one end and two jukeboxes, one on each end of the dance floor. Daddy decked out the music room with wagon-wheel lights and wallpaper portraying cowboy images, complete with horses, hats, and spurs. On weekends, he’d invite forty to fifty friends to bring some food and an instrument and join him to sing, pick, and dance, and of course the kids always participated too. Those gatherings were informal, fun, often rowdy, and the music was definitely country.
At home or in the car, our radio was usually tuned to WSOC-FM, a country-music station out of Charlotte. If music was playing around the Traywick home, it was never anything but old-time country music. And I loved it! The more I learned about music, the more I appreciated the intricate inflections and phrasing of singers such as George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Lefty Frizzell. I listened to their music so much it became a part of me. Although I never took any formal singing lessons, I think I subconsciously learned from George, Merle, and Lefty and patterned my style after theirs, subtly applying their techniques to my voice. So when someone said, “Hey, Randy, you sound a lot like George Jones,” I took that as a great compliment.
Eventually the other kids in our family fell away from performing music, but my older brother, Ricky, and I continued with it. By the time I was nine, Ricky and I had already played our first gig as a duo, the Traywick Brothers, at a fiddlers’ convention held at Marshville Elementary School. The Traywick Brothers sometimes included a couple of our cousins, but mostly it was just the two of us. Ricky and I soon became regular performers at talent shows, school events, benefits, and even local honky-tonks and bars. We also played in clubs, although our young ages meant Mama or Daddy always had to accompany us. Daddy bought us matching outfits—white pants with a red shirt and a red neckerchief. We played at a bunch of VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) clubs, Kiwanis events, just about anywhere someone would let us play.
When I was ten years old, my dad bought me a new guitar for Christmas. He bought Ricky a set of drums, and the racket we produced together was enough to wake up the ghosts from Christmases past!
Daddy entered Ricky and me in every fiddlers’ contest we could get to, and before long we were winning first prize in our age group. At each event Daddy picked out the songs he wanted us to perform—usually something by Hank Williams, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, or some other traditional country artist. And Daddy expected us to win. When we didn’t, he let the judges know about it. He was tough on us, too, yelling at us if we hit a wrong note. If I didn’t sing a song just right, Daddy often made me start over from the beginning. I really didn’t want to sing in public, but Daddy seemed obsessed with me being a performer, so who was I to argue with my dad?
Daddy was old school. “If I told you once, you better listen,” he’d say. And he meant it. He expected immediate obedience, especially from Ricky and me, and by the same token, we knew if Daddy said it, if he told us he was going to do something, that’s what he was going to do, whether anyone liked it or not. His word was the law around our house.
Mama was a saint, and she was the one who smoothed out some of Daddy’s rough spots. Even though we were not regular church attenders—she occasionally went to Hamilton Crossroads Baptist Church and later to Fountain United Methodist Church—she tried her best to instill biblical values in all of us kids, values such as kindness, truthfulness, honesty, humility, and integrity. She read the Bible to us, and she tried to show grace and mercy. With Daddy, she had plenty of opportunity to practice both.
I loved Mama dearly and wanted to defend her. On one occasion, when I was around ten years old, Daddy got drunk and started beating on Mama, so I took up for her, jumped on him, and pulled him off her. Daddy was a big man, and I was slight and skinny, so I didn’t hang around long after Daddy rolled away from Mama. I scampered out the door with Daddy chasing behind me with his gun aimed in my direction. Daddy was bigger, but I was faster. I ran into a cornfield and hid there for two days trembling with trepidation—with no food or water—until Daddy sobered up and calmed down.
My sanctuary—where I could escape the craziness of Daddy’s drinking and his abusive, constant overcorrecting—was not really a place. It was my horse, Buckshot. One of my first horses had been Nugget, a palomino, and later, in my teens, I would have a wide-chested sorrel quarter horse I named Cody. But Buckshot was my favorite. Riding horses was a family affair for the Traywicks, and some of my best memories of my childhood are those times when our whole clan saddled up and rode together through the woods, fields, and trails around our home. At times I’d ride for miles with my friend, Tim Griffin. And when I had something on my mind, I’d ride for hours all by myself—just Buckshot and me.
We had about fifty acres on our property, and there were plenty of back-country roads, so we rode our horses everywhere. Sometimes we’d ride our horses to Mr. Pruitt Phifer’s country store about a mile away from our house. We’d tie off the horses out back and go inside to get sandwiches and drinks or some snacks. One of the favorite hangouts in Marshville—about five miles away from our house—was a place called the Wagon Wheel, and we’d often ride our horses right up to the drive-through window to get some burgers and milkshakes.
I was just starting to get the hang of the guitar when, in a fit of rage, angry about something Ricky had done, Daddy grabbed my guitar and—bam!—smashed it to pieces. I was angry when I came in and saw it, but I didn’t dare confront Daddy about it. Daddy was a big guy—and I wasn’t. For a while, I borrowed guitars from other family members. Later, when I was about fourteen years old, Daddy saw that I had taken more interest in music, so he bought me a new Gibson Dove guitar. Actually, he bought six of them, one for each of his kids. The Gibson Dove soon became my favorite guitar, and I play it to this day. I wouldn’t use it onstage, but when I reach for a guitar around the house, I pick up the Dove.
My first car was a truck—a ’65 Chevy. I was a pretty good driver, but I tended to drive too fast and too recklessly. I rolled that truck on three separate occasions. I shudder when I recall the first time I turned the truck over while it was still moving. Of course I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt back then, so as I tumbled through the air, I thought, This is odd. I’m on the ceiling . . . now I’m on the floor. . . . Still rolling, I thought, I’m back in the seat . . . I’m back on the ceiling . . . I’m on the floor again.
Had I died in that wreck, those would have been my last thoughts. Real profound, wasn’t I? It’s a good thing God was watching out for me, long before I really knew Him.
The wreck didn’t slow me down, though. I still loved to drive fast, so fast that my younger brother Dennis was afraid to ride with me. When Dennis was in elementary school, sometimes Mama asked me to pick him up from school. I pulled up in my blue pickup, and Dennis reluctantly climbed inside. He held on for dear life during the entire five-minute trip home.
Ricky and I were troublemakers from early on. We got into a lot of fights with some of the local ruffians and in some serious trouble too. Most people in Marshville just figured we were following in Daddy’s footsteps. Maybe we were.
When I wasn’t causing trouble with Ricky, I was doing so with my friends. I gave in to peer pressure early on, and I started running with the wrong crowd, mostly a bunch of guys a few years older than I was. I was smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol by the time I was ten years old. Not long after that I was using marijuana regularly—and not for medicinal purposes.
I was skipping school too—a lot. Many mornings I’d go in the front door of the school building and out the back without attending classes. I’d goof off all day with my buddies, then go home around the time I thought Mama might be expecting me. The principal realized what I was doing and tried to give me a break. He allowed me to go outside and pick up cigarette butts in the parking lot rather than tell Daddy I’d been skipping classes. But that wasn’t enough to persuade me to actually go to school. I finally quit after completing only the eighth grade. I wasn’t stupid; I was bored. I was getting horrible grades anyhow, so dropping out of school seemed inevitable. Mom and Dad didn’t emphasize education. Consequently, not all of us kids graduated high school, and none of us went to college.
While our teachers didn’t have a great influence in our lives, our local police did; they knew us well. We were more than rambunctious kids doing dumb things—we were actual juvenile delinquents. For instance, Ricky and I once broke into the Nicey Grove Baptist Church and held a beer party there. We were charged with breaking and entering. In separate incidents I was arrested for public drunkenness, for driving while intoxicated, and for attempting to elude an officer of the law. On too many occasions to remember, our local police hauled Ricky and me into jail. I was arrested so many times that I knew the officers at the Monroe County Courthouse and jail by name—and they knew me on a first-name basis.
Daddy always came down hard on us when he had to bail us out sometime during the night, but he wouldn’t go to court with us. That was Mama’s job, he figured. No doubt that was a blessing, because the judge knew Mama to be an upright woman and probably had mercy on Ricky and me largely because of Mama’s character.
I was every parent’s nightmare during my teen years. I possessed a fiery temper that I kept under control most of the time, but when it erupted I could do some serious damage. I did bad things just for the sheer evil of doing them. For instance, I once threw a brick through the front window of Pruitt Phifer’s country store so Ricky and I could steal some pocketknives and Timex watches—and Mr. Phifer was a family friend! Thankfully he didn’t press charges.
A lot of the trouble I got into as a teenager revolved around alcohol and vehicles. I totaled two cars, a couple of pickup trucks, and a horse and buggy. The horse survived okay, but the buggy didn’t fare as well. I even “borrowed” Ricky’s car one day and wrecked it trying to get away from the police. At one point, I was running the throttle wide open, and the police clocked me at more than 135 miles per hour when I lost control and spun around backward several times, crashing through a cornfield at more than 70 miles per hour before finally coming to a stop. I was okay, but Ricky nearly killed me when he saw the damage to his car!
Although the Marshville police extended a lot of grace to Ricky and me, they couldn’t cover their eyes and ears when we got caught red-handed trying to rip off a van. I was already on probation because I had recently been arrested several times—once for a DUI, again, driving on a revoked license, and once for disorderly conduct. So when we were arrested for trying to steal a van, there was little doubt that we’d be heading to prison.
Despite our rowdy behavior, Ricky and I were still playing music all around the area. About that time, in 1975, we entered a music talent contest at Country City USA, a club owned and operated by Frank and Elizabeth Hatcher. That talent contest turned out to be a pivotal point in my life.
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